Editor’s Choice Award February 2020, Short Story

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Medon by Bill S.

The hushed, spun-out, precise prose of “Medon” is what caught my attention this month—and inside just one sentence. Beautifully written, incredibly observed, tonal and subtle, there’s masterful sentence-level work going on in this piece, but sometimes the aspects of our craft strong enough to carry a story can veil what has room for further work, and I think that’s at the core of the author’s question: why “Medon” is getting second reads, but no acceptances yet. This month, I’d like to discuss looking at other aspects of craft on a story when reaching excellence on one of them isn’t getting the result, and how we build the understructures that make a story operating on dreamlike logic work.

I can immediately see what’s garnered this piece some second reads at magazines (as per the author’s notes!): “Medon” establishes atmosphere and tone in the very first sentence. The word choice in that one line does so much work, from picking slightly inobvious and non-aggressive verbs (paddled, pulled, dipping) to set an emotional mood, to the intense alliteration within the sentence (paddled pulling pale paddles) that stitches it all together and connects it to the next (swollen steady say surgeon), as well as the animacy of the imagery (waters that are swollen, trees with limbs, blades that are paletiny hands, open mouth). The rhythm of it reminds me of a Nick Cave song, of Virginia Woolf—of a certain type of early 20th century modernist British literature—and all the connotations of that time and place come with it: a sense of shimmering, terrible, beautiful impermanence.

That is an incredible amount of work being done in one line, in a first line, and conflict, place, and cast are established just as quietly and quickly before the first paragraph is done. And that work stays consistent through the piece. Overall, the writing here is absolutely stellar: it’s rhythmic, specific, textured, made of sound, and every hitch in its diction unveils an emotion. It forces me to read “Medon” slow enough to savour, to spend time with every line.

If “Medon” hasn’t found a home yet, it’s because of something other than the sentence-level writing, and when we’re not sure what’s causing friction between a story and editors, it’s worthwhile to take a subtractive approach: eliminate what we know is working and then read the story with every other element of craft in mind, to see which one gives us the mental hitch of something that has room for improvement. As a reader, I should be able to peel away that beautiful prose and still find a solid and cohesive story world, characters with internal logic, a plot that has beats and develops causally and pays off into results that matter, thematics with something to say. It’s when one of those engines isn’t firing quite on full that stories, I think, hit second reads and then rejections.

When I peeled away the prose itself, a few points stood out to me as potential sites for work, and the major one was plot logic and narrative motion. The prose draws me through “Medon” so effectively that it’s easy to not notice how major plot points have not been set up until they’re upon me, and feel abrupt and unsatisfying because that information isn’t within a cycle of setup-and-payoff. Dreamlike fiction definitely relies on mood, pace, and aesthetic, but reader-brains still find the same things in a story satisfying: setup and resolution, tension and payoff. The atmosphere of a story like “Medon” is gorgeous, but it’s useful to think of it as the skin, and it won’t move unless there are solid narrative mechanics underneath, muscles and bones, to make it walk. The trick is to create a sense of tension and payoff underneath that sense of dream-logic, so the story feels both strange and eerie but also inherently satisfying and solid. It’s not so much skimping on one’s plotting work as covering it over and expressing it in different ways.

With “Medon”, I think that understructure isn’t quite complete, and the abruptness of how key information (the dreams, the voice) is deployed is just one way that expresses itself; a patch of slow pacing around the walk through the woods toward Medon is another, because we are still moving, but nothing is narratively progressing yet, nothing is paying off at a point in a piece when it would be appropriate to drop the first few narrative dominoes and have them set off the next. The turn to finding Medon is abrupt, the connection between the flashback and what the old man transforms into still tenuous-feeling, the twist into a mission of revenge startling and oddly out of place given the tone the rest of the story created. And—I’m not sure that’s a goal that really lives up to the fine-grained attention the rest of the story’s putting out there. It’s fairly archetypical; it feels out of character. It’s an easy answer and everything else in this piece has led me as a reader to expect more complex ones—again, this is a question of satisfaction, setup and payoff. What have I as a reader been led to expect, and am I getting it?

Ultimately, I was left asking: What is actually happening here, on a barest plot level, and why is it satisfying to me as a reader and important to these characters? and that’s diagnostic of a plotting question still to be resolved.

What I’d suggest, in the face of that, is a serious and thoroughly thought-out redraft that approaches those questions head-on, run through the filter of what’s being set up, what’s being paid off in every scene. There’s so much thought being put into certain aspects of “Medon”; I’d love to see what it becomes if that much thought is applied to other aspects too, and the somewhat thinner logic of the archetypical rich people on high ground with guns, mysterious kissing knowledge, and revenge gets the attention, care, and complexity of a voice made of orchestra and bees; of wind, water, grass.

This is a lot of work—take this story apart, and then put it back together—but I think if you really step back, look at every element of craft, and think about what this story is and how each part of it can be strong in its own right to support the others, how each element of craft in “Medon” interacts, it’ll be very possible to give this story a sense of plotting and pacing that supports that prose so firmly that the entire piece is luminous. I think the story is very much worth that work.

Best of luck!

–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance of Ashes (2015)

Leave a Reply